Some things in life are wonderfully flawed. Coffee is one of them.
In a recent article on Geek Wire, a team of scientists discussed the idea of trying to find “the perfect cup of coffee.” This comes as no surprise. We are a culture berated with choice and the idea of a “perfect cup” of coffee strips down our options, presenting what so many of us desire most: a pre-selected sample of what is considered to be the very best of, well, anything. All of us, in varying degrees, want perfection. We scour the internet for perfect shirts, perfect songs, perfect advice from perfect experts, an unending quest to have in our possession an object — metaphysical or otherwise — that is above reproach from any sector. But, to say that a perfect cup of coffee exists, argues against our subjective desires as humans. It makes the statement that within the wide spectrum of personal palette and experience, there is a singular cup of coffee that could possibly satisfy all of our individual wants and needs. To this, I say, “No, thank you.”
So Many Ways To Screw It Up
The roasting and brewing of coffee in itself is problematic when looking to achieve perfection. Coffee is, or it can be, a delicate, fickle product. It’s altered and changed by the smallest shift in natural occurring phenomenons, like temperature and barometric pressure at both the roasting and brewing stages. A long while ago, I spoke to renowned coffee consultant Ben Kaminsky about a future where a perfect roast profile could be achieved if the coffee was roasted in a sealed laboratory, free from the flavor altering natural elements. It’s certainly a fun visual — roasters in svelte biohazards suits, locked within a sterile white room, poking and prodding at a batch of Brazil’s finest with forceps. And while this might be the future norm, for now we soldier forward, with the natural agents of change buffering us at every corner. As if nature itself was constantly reminding us that perfection is a concept never fully achieved. And let us not forget that each roaster, suited up in clinical garb or not, is a human being, with all our species foibles and beautiful inadequacies, like it or not, transferring into the roasting process. We will never, thank goodness, be perfect, thus, no batch of beans will ever be roasted perfectly.
Human Error Overload
Let’s imagine for a moment though, that yes, in some high-tech facility on a barren stretch of New Jersey turnpike, roasters have achieved a perfect roast profile. How does one then account for the natural imperfection of a barista? Though coffee is often compared to wine in terms of terroir and vintage, there is a striking difference. This being the barista.
While wine sits in a barrel for years before making it to the table and being poured, coffee, regardless of how well it’s roasted, is then placed at the mercy of the barista, all of their coffee context coming to bear. A barista, or better yet a coffee consumer who prepares a morning cup, is a product of years of experience, training, and personal preference.
Once this imaginary perfectly roasted bean ends up in a hopper, all bets are off. This “perfect” bean is now in the hands of a wildcard who, for better or worse, can and will pull a shot or brew a cup with their own personal biases tugging at them the entire way.
Be it tamping method, preferred portafilter, temperature of the water or any other number of options controlled by the barista behind the machine, finding a perfect cup of coffee seems impossible with the preferences of thousands of coffee specialists standing in it’s way. And let’s not forget about the natural elements in any given coffee shop – any open door or a crush of customers raising or lowering the temperature, thus affecting the speed at which the shot of espresso is pulled, for example. Sure, there’s a slim possibility of perfection being achieved in the roasting process, but how does the industry account for human element that invariably exists at the end of any supply chain?
Beyond any of this though, I firmly believe, that the way we enjoy our coffee needs to be subjective as, again, we are not a perfectly aligned species, always seeking a uniformly perfect flavor profile.
Why search for a perfect cup when a large portion of our coffee society eschews an excellent cup of a light roasted Rwandan in favor of a dark, sludgy cup of Dunkin’ Donuts?
There’s no reason to believe that somewhere in the middle of speciality coffee and the ubiquitous (insert chain coffee outfit here) there is a cup of joe that will fit the flavor wants of everyone. And as much as the beauty of coffee lies in its malleability — in our ability to shape it’s flavor at the brewing level — this only allows each of us, individually, to craft our own perfect cup of coffee, removed from what other’s have deemed “perfect.” We are humans, we are defined by our ability to choose, and through this choice, we consistently dispel the idea of a perfect anything. Perfection is only in the eye of the beholder, and that eye may be similar, but never the same. Even at the barista level, we have personal preference. We walk into our coffee shops every morning or week and some of us are pleased when one barista is working and some of us are not, because that barista prepares the coffee in their own way, and that way is beloved by some, and not by others.
Coffee is a wild, wonderful product, a simple bean that has innumerable possibilities of flavor, an argument with an endless number of conclusions — all of them right, all of them wrong.
And yes, someday when we live in future houses with our every preference tended to by an army of clear-voiced, smiling artificial intelligence, some version of a perfect cup of coffee may exist. A coffee machine may be invented that is impervious to the whim of nature, to the specific desires of the individual conscious. A robotic barista may stand behind this machine at coffee shops the world over, able to produce, over and over again, whatever the blueprint for “perfect coffee” has been decided, without error and without the concerns of the perfection-smearing traits of their own personal experience. But what then? Do we, the coffee consuming public, forgo our own delight in a cup of shitty diner coffee? Do we bid adieu to a drop of simple syrup at the bottom of a latte? Do we, quite frankly, become a society of coffee drinkers all happily sipping the exact same beverage? I think not. The human enjoyment in pursuit of perfection is an open-ended one, the search so much more enjoyable then the actual result. So, while a new wave of scientists sift through the data to try and discern a cup of coffee that suits the needs of every coffee-drinking human across the globe, the rest of us will continue to find enjoyment in the search for our own perfect cup of coffee. Whatever that might be.